By Jessica Kirby —
Imagine it: a long, lazy wander through a forested park, patches of blue sky winking through the forest canopy, and a well-worn path at your feet. Smells of pine and moss whirl in the air, and the world is alive with rustling—birds, squirrels, and bunnies scamper about close enough to touch. The wind in the trees is a melodious whisper, a bird calls, deer dash off in the distance—the scene is idyllic and peaceful, until a stark, wailing interrupts your reverie … clearly, it’s time to take the kids home.
Hiking with children is not for the faint of heart. Their legs are shorter, their minds wander, and their tolerance for things like bugs, excessive sunshine, and tripping is very low. A moment of peace interrupted by a complete and final severing of patience and rationale is painful in any scenario, but out in the bush, five kilometers from the car, it can mean total chaos.
But the benefits of taking kids for a hike are so plentiful, Canadian parents buckle down and take the risk every, single day in just about every True North locale you can think of. Besides the obvious benefits of exercise and fresh air, kids who play in nature are calmer, have a greater sense of restfulness, feel more connected to the Earth and her bounties, are better problem solvers, have longer attention spans, and are more likely than their Xbox-wielding counterparts to find wonder in small things. Parents, of course, cling to this reasoning when they head out into the bush to create well-rounded children, but without a good sense of creativity, patience, and how to abort mission before explosion, the best-intended mission can end in a crash landing.
Beware the Evil Eye
Everyone has that Facebook friend who riddles their page with award-winning photos of themselves and a gaggle of children, smiling and care-free as they tramp 200 miles through the wilderness in a single weekend. Rest assured, if these photos are indeed accurate, and not just taken in the parking lot at the trailhead before everything went to hell in a handbasket, these parents have worked hard at creating a good experience. If you are just starting out on this honorable endeavour, don’t compare yourself to the experts and stay focused on your own mission: keep it simple, set realistic limits, and have a back-up plan.
Remember basic safety tenets: stay together, watch for steep inclines or rocky ground, dress in layers, stop and hug a tree if you get lost, and blow your emergency whistle if everything else fails. Come equipped with a healthy mix of protein and natural sugar snacks: nuts, jerky, peanut butter sandwiches, dried or fresh fruit, chopped veggies, or simple plant-based electrolyte gels. Bring sunscreen, hats, and a change of socks, and if possible, let the kids carry a camera to take their own pictures.
Let the children carry a pack—it gives them a sense of purpose. Their packs can contain water, a small snack, and a few bandages and should be equipped with an emergency whistle. If the terrain and weather calls for it, you can add spare socks and a hat or toque. Let them choose from two or three pairs of sturdy, closed-toe shoes. “Put your runners on” doesn’t have the same appeal as, “Do you think the red runners or the pink runners would be better Deep Woods Super Hero attire?” and remember that sandals or flip flops should not be part of the equation.
Live in Reality
Ideally, you will have access to a route with several distance options so you can re-evaluate the plan along the way, but if not, plan an out-and-back or loop that takes into account your children’s fitness level and experience. Five km might seem small to you but like a marathon to little ones. Keep it short and sweet until they build up their resilience and strength.
Tell the Creative Truth
The most important tip for hiking with kids who aren’t keen to get outside or walk longer distances has got to be: “Don’t call it hiking.” Call it wandering, adventuring, searching for forest treasure, evading pirates, or exploring new lands—anything that conveys fun, adventure, and excitement without a clear indication that walking a longer distance may be involved.
Geocache Your Way to Fitness
The first time we heard about geocaching was right around the time my son proclaimed he was never going to walk again, ever. “Okay,” I said, non-committedly while casually mentioning there were tiny treasure boxes filled with goodies all around the neighbourhood … “But hey,” I said. “No biggie. We can go in a few years when you’re feeling more rested …” Needless to say, it took less than 20 minutes to download the app, change clothes, fill the snack packs, and head out the door. We went for three hours, found four caches, and had a pretty amazing picnic in a maple grove. Enough said.
Once you get out there, let the games begin: you might be searching for treasure or evading capture. We often play a game of scavenger hunt where everyone has to find things like a stick shaped like a Y, a five-leaf branch, something yellow, or sign of an animal. I Spy and 20 Questions are classic and effective favourites, and with older kids try Tracker or hide-and-seek, where someone runs ahead and hides beside the trail and others have to find the hiding person. If they pass him or her, the hiding person wins. Important here is to make sure no one gets too far ahead—kids can be paired with an adult for safety.
Enthusiasm and Excitement Around Every Bend
If you’re excited, they will be excited. Build anticipation about what is around every bend—a waterfall, a meadow, a great climbing spot. Let the terrain be the mystery and the reward. Instead of taking breaks, stop regularly for “recharging” or “energy stops.” These can be places to snack, fuel up on water, and plan the next leg, while secretly evaluating whether a meltdown is close at hand. And speaking of which, end your adventure on a good note, before everyone is exhausted. You are more likely to gain compliance next time if everyone remembers the ride home in a positive note.
Hiking with your kids is like doing anything with your kids—the more effort you put into making it fun and age-appropriate, the more you will get out of it. Kids trust their parents and will do whatever you appear to be having fun doing. So if your lifestyle is active and appreciative of the outdoors, they will want the same. If you are easily rattled and are visibly agitated at the first sign of trouble, they will follow suit. Take a breath, be creative, and remember that every moment together in nature is irreplaceable. Happy hiking!